MHQ Reviews: A Call to Arms, by Maury Klein

By Jim Lacey
11/12/2013 • MHQ Departments, MHQ Reviews

A defense worker at a North American Aviation plant assembles an engine cowling for a B-25 medium bomber, October 1942. (Alfred T. Palmer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress)
A defense worker at a North American Aviation plant assembles an engine cowling for a B-25 medium bomber, October 1942. (Alfred T. Palmer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress)


A Call to Arms
Mobilizing America for World War II
By Maury Klein. 912 pp.
Bloomsbury, 2013. $40.
Reviewed by Jim Lacey


RIGHT AFTER D-DAY, war correspondent Ernie Pyle described the beaches of Normandy:

On the beach itself…were all kinds of wrecked vehicles. There were tanks that had only just made the beach before being knocked out. There were jeeps that had burned to a dull gray. There were big derricks on caterpillar treads that didn’t quite make it….There were LCT’s turned completely upside down.

Pyle concluded there was wreckage on the beach “sufficient for a small war.” But it was Pyle’s final analysis that told the full story: “We could afford it.” And the reason we could do so, Pyle explained, was that “we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total.”

It does not disparage the heroism and sacrifice of our World War II veterans to state a simple fact: the United States’ most crucial contribution to the Allied war effort was what General Paul von Hindenburg once called our “pitiless industrial might.” It is, therefore, rather startling that, except for a couple of nearly unreadable official histories, there is no comprehensive retelling of the “production miracle” that made the United States the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Maury Klein’s A Call to Arms fills that gap. Moreover, it does so in a spectacular fashion. Klein’s work does the same for the story of American production that Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction, 2006) did for those trying to grasp the scope of Germany’s World War II economic effort.

This volume is not, however, for readers focused on the military aspects of World War II. The great battles and campaigns of the war are merely a backdrop to Klein’s larger story, and therefore, are given scant attention. But for those seeking a comprehensive understanding of World War II, A Call to Arms is a must read. Moreover, considering the subject matter, this is a great read. Just when it appears that Klein is going to bog down in minutiae he enlivens the narrative with well-chosen stories of the exceptional individuals whose determination and sweat equipped millions of Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

Many of the best stories relate the problems businessmen and industrialists had with the government’s confirmed New Dealers, as they tried implementing the policies necessary for all-out munitions production. In one meeting, chaired by Vice President Henry A. Wallace, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had unwisely put in charge of early production planning efforts, Wallace interrupted to ask fellow board member and production expert William Knudsen, “What is brass?” Knudsen’s first thought was that Wallace was joking, but when it became clear that it was a serious question, he took the time to explain. Just minutes later, the vice president stopped a speaker to inquire how many gallons were in a barrel of oil. And so it went for several hours, until Knudsen departed in despair, wondering if the Germans would give the Allies time to educate their government officials.

More than 70 years later, anyone wanting to understand the huge scope and tremendous exertions involved in turning the world’s largest economy toward war can ask for no better guide than A Call to Arms.


Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. His most recent book, with coauthor Williamson Murray, is Moment of Battle: Twenty Clashes That Changed the World.